The world premiere of the new musical, “Gun & Powder,” at Signature Theatre was sold out shortly after opening and deservedly so. With book and lyrics by Angelica Chéri, music by Ross Baum, and an astoundingly talented cast directed by Robert O’Hara (Slave Play), this show is Broadway-worthy. Chosen out of 170 submissions through SigWorks: Musical Theater Lab program, Signature has hit gold with this incredible tale of two African American sisters in America’s Wild West.
…hopefully this exciting musical will land on Broadway.
Inspired by Chéri’s own family history and the ever-changing legend of her two great-great-aunts, Mary (Solea Pfeiffer) and Martha Clarke (Emmy Rever-Lampman), Gun & Powder explores racial identity and the meaning of family. The light-skinned twin sisters were born of a black mother and a white man who has long since abandoned them. Technically freed slaves, the Clarke women are not truly free of the prejudices and lack of opportunity in Post-Civil War America. As sharecroppers, they rent land from a ruthless landowner to grow and harvest cotton. When their mother, Tallulah (Marva Hicks), can’t pay the rent, the girls hatch a plan to help her – by passing as white and seeking their fortune away from home. Their momma reluctantly lets them go but not without giving them a gun for protection.
With the intent of using the opportunities afforded white people to make money, an incident on the train out of town puts the sisters on quite a different path – as reluctant (at first) female Robin Hoods. Surprisingly successful and with growing confidence, this eventually lands them in the town of Sweet Christine, Texas in 1893 – and (they hope) their last score. But two men will win their hearts and pit the sisters against themselves and each other.
In Sweet Christine, Mary is completely smitten with the wealthy (and slightly shady) white owner of the local saloon, Jesse (Dan Tracy) as he is with her. Martha is tenderly wooed and ultimately falls for Jesse’s manservant, Elijah (Donald Webber Jr.). The sisters’ choices are complex – for Mary, it is disavowing her racial identity and mother for the love of an inherently racist man (though he later reveals his inner conflicts in “Even Human”). For Martha, it is a dark-skinned black man who offers her a sweet love but would expose her and her sister – and possibly separate them.
Though poignant and touching on subjects that we are still sadly dealing with today, Chéri’s book and lyrics have the right balance of humor and drama, along with one show stopper after another thanks to Ross Baum’s blend of soul, spirituals, jazz and R&B in the score. The voices will literally blow you away and the musicians under the direction of Darryl G. Ivey are fabulous. The choreography by Byron Easley is lively and fresh.
The story is narrated by the amazing ensemble/kinfolk where many of the main characters weave in and out in dual roles. The entire cast is a powerful mix of local talent, Broadway, off-Broadway, and national tour veterans. Pfeiffer (tour of Hamilton) and Rever-Lampman (original Broadway cast of Hamilton) are the heart – luminescent, vulnerable, and strong. With many Broadway shows under his belt (and taking a break from his role as Burr in the San Francisco company of Hamilton), Webber’s Elijah is sweet and soulful. “Invisible” will melt your heart. As Jesse’s two housemaids, Sissy and Flo, Yvette Monique Clark and Awa Sal Secka practically steal the show every time they are on stage (“Dirty Shame” and “Dangerous.”) Broadway veteran Marva Hicks is a force of nature.
The creative team also deserves kudos for their fine work. Though simple with a few set pieces, the team of Jason Sherwood (scenic design), Alex Jainchill (lighting design), and Kaitlyn Pietras/Jason H. Thompson (projection design) create vivid backgrounds to the action with period collages and bold visuals projected onto a textured backdrop. Dede Ayite’s costumes are simply beautiful.
It’s a shame the show didn’t have a longer run but hopefully this exciting musical will land on Broadway. Angelica Chéri and Ross Baum are rising stars to watch.
Running time: Approximately 2 ½ hours including one 15-minute intermission.
“Gun & Powder” runs through February 23, 2020, at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington, VA 2220. Box office: 703-820-9771. Check out their website for upcoming shows.